As Harry continued to not get any satisfaction, or coffee, from Koz, Ray slumped in the booth opposite Mo while the echoes of his last statement hovered in the table between them.
“Maybe I would ‘let it go’,” she said, providing air quotes as she did. “Just sit back on my fine ass and let my brothers drown in their mutual asshattery— if I believed for one hot second that either one of you deserved it.”
“He thinks I deserve it,” Ray muttered.
He looked up. Saw her expression. Sighed. “I don’t hate Soljah.”
Her brow arched.
Ray’s lip turned up. “Fine, I do hate him. A little. But he started it.”
Mo’s cheek twitched. “He said that, too.”
They stared at each other. Her other brow rose to join the first, a clear dare.
“Fuck it.” Ray tossed back the rest of his drink before asking. “When did you see him, last?”
She had the grace not to smirk. “Two standard months back. The CFS Mandela was docked at Sakai Station for some furlough.”
“That’s near one of the Ha’Q frontiers,” Ray noted.
“A couple systems out from trouble, but close,” she agreed.
“It can still be dangerous.”
Her eyes twinkled. “You’ll hate this, but Sol said that, too.”
Ray did hate it, but, “This time he’s right. Jesus, Mo, treaty or no, the Ha’Q still stage raids on those borders. It’s rough territory.”
“Extremely rough,” she agreed. “Just the kind of place to find a whole bunch of very bad people with lots and lots of disposable income.”
“I don’t suppose you told Mr. Stick-up-his-ass what you were doing out there?”
“He knows better than to ask about my work.”
“But he’s more than happy to tell me I’m a monumental fuck-up at every opportunity.”
“Once,” she said, holding up a finger and pointing it at Ray. “He told you that exactly once.”
“And followed it up with a sucker punch,” he pointed out. “Before storming out of the room before I could get a swing in.”
“And that would have gone so well, what with you having just been convicted of beating another superior officer half to death.”
“More like three-quarters to death,” Ray said, despite his jaw tightening.
“It’s not funny, Ray—”
“No,” he cut in as the old, old fury surged up into his throat, hazed his eyes. “It was never funny. Rikert murdering over four hundred of his own troops wasn’t a joke, either. But Rikert didn’t just get away with it, he got a fucking medal for it.” He sat back, shook his head in an attempt to dislodge the clawing anger. “He deserves worse than anything I did to him.”
“He does,” Mo said, leaning close and lowering her voice. “And if you’d reached out to me, seven years ago, we could have made sure he got worse. But you didn’t do that. Did it even occur to you?” she asked. “Before you got stinking drunk, and used those killer hands you’re so proud of to ruin your own life, did you even once think that me, or even Sol—who had the rank and the ears of an admiral—might have tried to help you deal with Colonel Fuckhead Rikert?”
Ray straightened. Blinked. Stared. “I never—”
“Of course you didn’t.” This time Mo cut him off, flicking the air as if at an annoying fly. “You wouldn’t. Because there’s no problem in the Known that Ray Don Slater can’t handle, no dragon he can’t slay, no Big Bad he can’t eliminate… all by his lonesome.”
“Cowboys don’t slay dragons,” Ray muttered.
“Padraigh Klempt,” she said, pointing at him again.
“Klempt wasn’t much of a dragon,” he said, recalling his eight-year-old nemesis. “More like a salamander.”
“What about Estefan Stima?”
At her prompt, Ray’s thoughts shot to the age of thirteen, and the scrawny drug dealer who’d preyed on the kids of Coogler Street. “A horned viper, at best.”
“Mick Polito, Em’ek-122, Suye Ekata,” she continued, ticking off each name with a tap on the table.
“Wait.” He leaned in. “How did you find out about Ekata? You were out the orphanage by then.”
“I may or may not have sliced into your disciplinary files.”
“You sliced my school records?” he asked. “I mean, again?”
Because the first time she’d done it, a twelve year old Ray and Sol had been right there at her side. All three had gone on a data dive through the orphanage records in hopes of learning how they’d come to be in the orphanage in the first place.
“Someone had to clean it up when you decided to sign on to the Corps.”
“I don’t see why,” he said, thinking back. “The Fleet took Sol, and his discplinary sheet was almost as long as mine.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “It was.”
“Jesus.” He sat back, stared. “You sliced his records, too?”
“It was the least I could do, since neither of my brothers wanted to follow my footsteps into a much more profitible—and less bleedy—career. Plus, he had some issues to work out with the Ha’Q and I figured, better in the Fleet than on his own.” She shrugged. “But when I look at him now, it’s obvious he loves the job, beyond the whole, ‘the Ha’Q murdered my parents’ deal.”
“Did you find anything else?” Ray asked, before he could think better. “I mean…”
“I know what you mean,” she said her voice soft as his cut out. “But no. Nothing had been added to any of our histories since that first dive. Sol was orphaned by the HaQ, me by greed, and you—“
“And I came from nowhere,” Ray said, toasting himself and taking a quick slug that did nothing to ease the tightness in his throat.
“Hey. Nobody comes from nowhere.” Mo laid a hand over his as he set the glass down. “We just haven’t figured out your where, yet.”
That had him blinking. “You’re still looking?”
“It matters to you,” she said simply, then squeezed his hand. “I’ve missed you, Cowboy.”
“Same goes, Duchess.”
“He misses you, too,” she said.
“And here we go, again,” Ray muttered.
“He does,” she said. “Even if, like a certain someone, he’s too stubborn to admit it.”
“More like too stubborn to forgive my monumental fuck-up.”
“Give him time.”
“He’s had seven years.”
“No,” she countered. “He’s had two to deal with you deep-sixing your career in a drunken fury. That was followed by five years knowing you went from brother, to soldier, to convict, to assassin.”
It’s not like that, was what he wanted to say, but then he thought better, because to anyone not living inside his skin, it was exactly like that. “Is that what you think?” he asked, even as he hated himself for asking.
“If it was, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “If it was, it wouldn’t kill me, knowing my brothers can’t stand to be in the same sector, much less the same room. And,” she added, with a wicked little smile, “if it were true, I wouldn’t be so damn happy you’ve got Jessyn in your life.”
“Oh. I don’t—I mean, we just—we’re not—” He shook his head over a denial that couldn’t quite form.
Not because he didn’t have a good thing going, but because, like all good things, he knew it couldn’t possibly last.
And, as if the universe were right there with him, the slam of boots on the floor, an abbreviated shriek, and the sudden glare of what Ray recognized as a pulser-mounted scope filled the room.
“Sentients!” A modulated voice blared over the music. “This is a duly authorized search. Please remain in your place.”
“GIES,” Mo hissed, identifying the telltale black uniforms.
“What the hells?” Ray began to rise.
“Hold it, Cowboy,” Mo said, looking over his shoulder as a pair uniformed heavies appeared from the stage door behind him.
One held her weapon at the ready while the second began running a handheld scanner over the nearest party.
“Way to crash a party,” Ray said as the pair moved in their direction.
“Since when does GIES work in non-ConFed space?” Mo murmured.
Ray shook his head, eyes skimming the rest of the joint.
The lights were still dim, and the music still playing, but the dancers had all gone still, and he couldn’t help but notice the lack of movement made the dancers appear vulnerable in a way they hadn’t while strutting their stuff.
All but one particular dancer, a female with masses of tumbling red hair who stood on her center-club stage with the attitude of a warrior, or a goddess.
She looked Human, and Ray thought she was close to his six feet in height, and voluptuous with it.
Looking at the statuesque dancer, Ray was reminded of a painting he’d seen once, during a rare visit to Earth. It had been a representation of Boudica facing down the conquering Romans.
And like Boudica in that ancient painting, the flame-haired dancer showed no fear.
Not even when a pair of gene-cops approached to run the scanner over her.
Not even when a flash from the scanner’s screen turned the GIES officer’s eyes a bloody red.
And especially not when the red-haired dancer kicked that officer, and actual blood exploded from his nose.
Ray heard Mo say “Fuck,” but didn’t know if it was because the GIES officers were drawing down on the dancer, or because Ray had just shoved to his feet and threw a fist into the face of the officer next to their table, who’d just pointed his scanner in Ray’s direction.
Either way, Ray found the crunch of GIES agent's nose cartilage incredibly satisfying.
Less satisfying was the sound of Harry’s voice buzzing in his ear.
/Loki to Orion, we have a problem./
“Join the club,” Ray muttered, snapping his elbow into the temple of the second agent.
As she fell, he grabbed her weapon with his free hand. “A flock of GIES just raided Phanstasmik. Looks like they’re rousting the help.”
/Shit/ came back over the coms, along with a softer /GIES is hitting another location/ which told Ray two things. Harry was talking to someone else, and GIES was also at the arcade.
Since there was shit all he could do about the latter, he handed the pulser to Mo. “Go to town,” he said.
“Asshole,” she said, but she took the weapon and double checked its setting—non-lethal—before laying down cover fire, which he used to dive into the fracas around Boudica.
/Listen, Orion/ Harry said as Ray trapped another agent’s arm and twisted, /we are on a fast exfil here. There is no time to get involved. Get Mo, get out, and do not engage. I repeat: Do. Not. Engage/
Ray watched Boudica throw one of her attackers into a laden table, breaking a few glasses and sending the patrons scrambling.
Not to be outdone, Ray dislocated his agent’s shoulder.
The shriek was impressive enough he barely heard the /You’ve already engaged, haven’t you?/ from Harry.
“What do you think, Old Man?” he asked even as he heard a a high-pitched squeal.
Spinning, Ray spied the larval Milleon leaping from its platform and onto the back of a black-shirted agent, where it clung like an oversized leach.
Thankfully, Harry said no more, and in the ensuing fracas, Ray forgot about Harry, Harry’s mission, and pretty much anything but putting as many GIES blackshirts on the floor as possible.
Given the way the dancers, the staff, and the customers were rallying, throwing anything from bar stools to cocktail onions at the invading agents, Ray thought things were looking good for Team Phantasmik.
Then he heard someone shout “Masks!” and saw every GIES goon still standing slap on the self-adhearing gas masks he recalled from his days in the Corps.
He looked around for Mo, but there wasn’t time to find her in the mix before the first of the smoke grenades struck, and the poetic smackdown against authority became a literal fog of war.
With, for Ray, the addition of a sickening whump, as someone’s club found its way into his gut.
Harry managed to get out of the VRcade fairly quickly, even with teams of antagonistic GIES agents roaming the floors.
Mostly because Harry had palmed his old IMS badge and flashed it at the first goon who stepped in his path.
“Finn, Detective Inspector IMF.” Harry tapped the badge.
The agent, whose own badge proudly bore the name Gorchek, gave it a brief, unimpressed, glance.
“And,” Harry echoed, “I was this close to nabbing a fugitive on these premises when you and yours crashed the party and sent him flying.”
“Sorry for your loss,” Gorchek said with what Harry recognized as a smirk.
Of course the GIES agent would be a smirker, Harry thought.
“You don’t look sorry,” he said, as Gorchek’s cohorts corralled a herd of teens and tweens and began running their scanners over the kids who appeared Human.
“Listen, I got orders from the Senate Committee on Genetic Crimes,” Gorchek stated flatly. “And clearance from the local government to seek and retain any genetic offenders. Feel free to file a complaint.”
“Thanks,” Harry said. “But I think my time is better used tracking down actual criminals.”
Gorchek’s jaw twitched, but all he said was, “Out.”
Harry bared his teeth in what an Eiolan would have termed the “I may be smiling, but I am murdering you with my thoughts,” smile, and dashed out of the arcade, and into the afternoon rain, where he tapped his comm to life.
“Loki to Motherboard, come back.”
/It’s about time!/ Mollin replied. /I’ve been trying to reach you. An entire GIES division made planetfall about an hour ago and they’re—/
“We got the newsflash,” Harry cut in. “Oshun and the asset are already en route to the ship,” he added, using the code name they’d given Jessyn. “I suggest you warm up the engines.”
/And what are you doing?/
“I’m going to retrieve Orion from a joint called Phantasmik, located on—”
/Lys Street. I’ve got it/ Mollin cut in, reminding Harry just how good the cy-tech was.
“Orion is in the weeds,” Harry said, dodging a tween on a hoverboard and then a shopper laden with packages and a rain shield. “Get into the Phantasmik security system and see what you can do to make a road for him.”
While Mollin did whatever he did, Harry continued to race for the club, blinking rain from his eyes and gritting his teeth against twinge in his back, the thudding ache in his side.
He didn’t slow until he turned onto Lys Street, where the rain shot of color from Phantasmik’s holo.
As he neared the club, he noted that the doors of the doors were open, but even in the wet, even from meters away, he could see, and smell, the telltale smoke of riot grenades in action.
“Loki to Motherboard,” he murmured into his comm. “How’s the slice going?”
/There’s not a lot to slice/ Mollin replied. /I’ve got an emergency alarm system here, and fire suppresse—/
“Fire suppressant,” Harry cut in. “Activate that. And alarms,” he added. “All the alarms. ASAP.”
Mollin muttered an obscene suggestion in Ha’Q, one that no Human could pronounce, much less perform.
A heartbeat later, Harry’s eardrums were assaulted by a piercing wail emerging from Phantasmik, underscored by a fresh rush of multilingual curses.
Stepping through the door, a cold mist slapped Harry in the face, telling him the suppressant had been released.
/I should warn you/ Mollin said as Harry strode through the foyer, /the suppressant is going to make things slippery/
Harry heard this last just as he stepped into the main lounge, and came perilously close to sliding onto his ass.
Luckily, growing up in Pennsylvania had included a lot of ice skating, so he was able to keep his feet, even as he continued to slide further into the chaos.
White foam showered from above, a kind of royal icing decorating the mix of GIES officers, civilians, and a whole lot of folks wearing very little indeed.
Harry, sliding, grabbed the edge of a round platform and brought himself to a skidding halt. “Thanks for the warning,” he said to Mollin.
A sudden squeal had him looking up, then raising his arms, just in time to catch a wriggling, multi-limbed Milleon.
“Where did you come from?” he asked the surprisingly heavy mass. “And where’s your parent?”
Even as he asked, a multi-limbed shadow emerged, foam dripping from its antennae, forelimbs waving in Harry’s direction.
“Good timing,” Harry said as the larvae gave a quick chitter of satisfaction. He passed the kid to the adult, then turned to scan the room for Ray and/or Mo.
The latter he found quick enough—no amount of foam was going to stay on that slick pink catsuit.
At the moment, Mo was engaged in a tug of war over a pulser with one of the masked agents.
Since the agent had about a half meter and a good twenty kilos of muscle on Mo, Harry wasn’t liking her chances.
Not, that is, until Mo solved the problem by letting go of the weapon, so that the agent stumbled, slipped on the foam-slicked floor, and fell back, knocking his head on one of the tables as he went.
“Mo!” Harry called out.
Her eyes shot up, locked on his. She sent him a thumbs up sign, then pointed over her shoulder, towards a sign that read “Employees Only” before starting back in that direction. As she disappeared through the door, Harry saw her yank her pink hair off and toss it over her shoulder.
With an appreciative grin, he continued to search for Ray.
Then a mountain of foam erupted between Harry’s stage and the bar, revealing a shock of dark hair, flying fists, and a few sizzling curses.
Ray’s eyes were tearing, Harry noted, and assumed he’d been close to one of the gas-bombs. He was also favoring his left leg, and he held himself at an angle that indicated possible damage to the ribs.
None of which, Harry noticed, did a thing to soften the blows Ray was delivering unto a GIES agent with an impressive, and disconcerting, combination of cold precision and visibly burning fury.
“Yo!” Harry called. “Orion!”
Ray, busy ripping off the dazed officer’s mask, the better to punch him in the face, didn’t seem to hear.
“Your man is out!” Harry shouted this time. “Hells, all of them are out,” he muttered as a statuesque red-head dropped a bottle on the last black-shirt standing.
Harry turned back in time to see Ray shove a knee into his agent’s nethers with a force that had Harry’s own nethers shrinking.
The agent performed a sort of slow dissolve into the foam, reminding Harry of nothing so much as the Wicked Witch of the West melting into a puddle.
Ray’s hands clenched, and Harry worried the younger operative might not consider the job done, but then he straightened, skimmed the room and met the eyes of the redhead. “Better fly,” he told her and Harry watched as the woman’s eyes shifted from murderous to sad in a blink. Then her head dipped in a nod and she vaulted over the bar where one of the bartenders was already pulling out a tray of cash, and another peeling off his shirt.
As the woman’s friends helped prep her for an escape, Harry joined Ray. “Time to go,” he said, gesturing towards the exit Mo had taken.
“You think?” Ray countered, then both men slipped and slid through the remaining masses, following in Mo’s tracks through the door and into the dressing room.
Here several dancers, including the Milleon and its father, were gathering their gear and heading out the door.
With no better options, Ray and Harry joined the mass.
Though his vision was still a little clouded from the gas, Harry couldn’t miss the flacid pool of shining pink catsuit laying near the exit.
He understood the need to ditch the telltale neon outfit, but couldn’t imagine what the hells Mo might have had on under the thing.
He found out a few seconds later, when he followed Ray though the back door and into a pelting rain, and a well-toned brunette with hazel eyes, wearing little more than a smile slid between he and Ray.
“That was fun,” Mo said, taking Harry’s arm and guiding him along the street that backed Phantasmik, stopping traffic as various drivers of various vehicles took notice.
“I think your idea of fun and mine are light years apart,” Ray said as the emergency response vans came careening to a stop outside the club.
As one, the threesome slid into the evacuating crowd flowing around the vans.
“On the bright side,” Harry said, doffing his blazer and draping it over Mo’s shoulders, “we didn’t actually burn anything down this time.”